“Loneliness is something we hear a lot from individuals in our community. It’s a time of physical distancing. And at first, this was really articulated as social distancing. And I think that’s a problem. Yes, we are physically disconnected, but that doesn’t mean that we’re socially disconnected.” — Lucy Flamm
Since COVID swept through the world, shelter in place and social distancing measures have kept us physically apart from our friends, families, and communities. Loneliness and isolation are pressing concerns as social distancing recommendations continue to be in place. But, being physically apart doesn’t mean that we can’t still come together. In a time of physical separation, mutual aid societies — local networks of neighbors helping out neighbors with anything from picking up groceries to pooling money for tires — are an example of community-building during COVID. In today’s episode, we hear from Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University that studies the health effects of loneliness. Then, we hear stories from members of the Cambridge Mutual Aid Society — organizing volunteer Lucy Flamm; Jeff Howe, a neighborhood pod leader; and Jackie Jones, a community advocate, and mutual aid recipient — about how COVID and mutual aid has changed their communities.
Celine Gounder: Hi, I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. And this is “Epidemic.” Today is Friday, July 17th.
The first stay-at-home orders of the pandemic started in February. By March, dozens of states had issued lockdowns. Non-essential businesses were closed, and people were told to stay home. For some stuck at home it felt like being in a submarine… trapped in a house with too many people. But there was another side to those orders too: loneliness.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad: Anecdotally we’re hearing a lot of people really struggling right now.
Celine Gounder: This is Julianne Holt-Lunstad. She’s a psychologist at Brigham Young University and a leading researcher on loneliness.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad: Having the kinds of social events and rituals disrupted, birthday parties, not happening, you know, funerals even, suddenly we can’t have those people around us.
Celine Gounder: Julianne says that loneliness works the same way that thirst drives someone to look for water—people are social creatures and they want to seek out others.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad: It’s unclear to what extent given this current situation, whether people are able to connect in other ways and, and adapt, or are, are still really struggling with some of those distressing feelings.
Celine Gounder: But loneliness isn’t just a distressing feeling… it could be a lot worse.
So I’ve heard loneliness being compared to smoking as being bad for your health. Can you sort of flesh that out for us a little bit more?
Julianne Holt-Lunstad: Yeah. So that, that comparison actually comes from my research.
Celine Gounder: Julianne looked at data from more than 3.4 million participants and found some pretty sobering statistics.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad: What we found was that loneliness increases earlier death by 26%; social isolation by 29%; and living alone by 32%. And so when we look at those specifically, it wouldn’t quite reach that, that comparison to smoking, but it still exceeds obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution.
Celine Gounder: But those feelings of isolation and loneliness are a little different during a pandemic. Now, everyone has to socially distance or isolate. And that can create a sort of solidarity.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad: Yeah. That’s one area that I think I’m hopeful about. People are beginning to recognize just how important our relationships are. And I see, you know, wonderful examples of people really reaching out to those who are vulnerable in their communities.
Celine Gounder: In this episode of “Epidemic,” we’re going to look deeper into this question. In a time when people are being asked to stay away from one another… how are people forging new social bonds… and even finding ways to help people who were previously strangers in their community?
This is the second in our series featuring our interns, and today my co-host is Annabel Chen.
Annabel Chen: Hi, I’m Annabel Chen. I’m a soon-to-be second year med student at Stanford University.
Celine Gounder: So, you came to us with this idea for an episode about loneliness. Why was that something that was on your mind at the time?
Annabel Chen: I think it was kind of two things that made me think about it. On one hand it was because around that time when I joined you guys we were being pulled out of school, and for me, our med school class is 90-ish people and we’re really tight. I’m sort of used to being with my classmates day-in and day-out and that’s my community. So being pulled out of school, you obviously feel a little untethered and maybe a little bit disconnected to the group that you’re used to being with, so I think that loneliness is something that naturally comes to mind when you’re taken out of your normal environment. And kind of on the idea of togetherness, I think around that time was also when those videos of people clapping for healthcare workers were going really viral and I thought there was something really beautiful about you know, New York being New York but then everyone kind of standing outside at a certain time of the evening and clapping together for this common goal. I thought that was, there was something really beautiful in that and I thought that was something worth exploring more.
Celine Gounder: Annabel, as you were sort of processing your own experience of loneliness, being away from your med school classmates, how did that get you thinking about solutions to that?
Annabel Chen: I guess, on the theme of people coming together, I started seeing more and more new stories about these things called mutual aid societies popping up, which I had previously never heard of. But the idea, I guess, is that communities are coming together where they share things that someone might need help with and that someone else might offer in terms of help. One of the organizations that I became interested in was called Cambridge Mutual Aid. And during my reporting I met a woman named Jackie Jones.
Jackie Jones: I’m Jackie Jones. Thank you for having me. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to put on lipstick.
Annabel Chen: Jackie lives in the Boston area.
Jackie Jones: Today I was like Zoom meetings and podcasts. I’m going to put it on lipstick. So it’s like, comb my hair and put on lipstick. I loved it.
Annabel Chen: Giving back is a big part of Jackie’s identity. Before the pandemic, she used to organize events for kids to visit nursing homes and build connections with the residents there. She sits on a public transportation advisory board for people with disabilities. And she founded an art therapy organization for survivors of domestic abuse. That organization came out of her own experience escaping a violent relationship.
Jackie Jones: Fleeing from domestic violence is very isolating. And unfortunately, like, even though I had a college degree, and I’d gone to college, and I had 401Ks, and I had worked in really good jobs, I found myself now as a single mom in a domestic violence shelter, having to go on welfare, get food stamps.
Celine Gounder: Jackie’s former husband would try to find her. He’d go to the churches she would attend. And she was embarrassed about the violence. She didn’t tell her friends what had happened. So Jackie lost the community that someone would normally turn to in their time of need.
Jackie Jones: I just found that it was easier to just self isolate. So going through this COVID isolation is normal, my normal.
Annabel Chen: Jackie tried to work, but it became increasingly difficult to hold down a job and care for her kids.
Jackie Jones: Poverty comes because I put my children first to make sure that their mental health was addressed. Rather than to like, you know, work forty hours a day or forty hours a week and, and, eight hours a day and not be there for them.
Annabel Chen: But this winter, things were looking up. Her sons were both in college. And she got a job.
Jackie Jones: I was so happy. I thought my whole world is gonna change. Everything’s gonna get better. We’re going to get to do all the things we sacrificed and didn’t get to do.
… Unprecedented time for New York state… all non-essential businesses closed their doors three hours ago as the state goes on pause to fight coronavirus…
Jackie Jones: I was looking around and people were talking about COVID, and they were nervous, and they were staying away from each other. Pretty soon I’m the only one on my station.
Annabel Chen: Jackie’s job was considered essential so she kept showing up for work. But as the situation got worse in Boston, she was told she could take leave…
Jackie Jones: And I was like, I’m not taking leave. I’m getting all this overtime from and no one’s here, you know? And I’m going to have plenty over time because there’s lots of work to do because no one’s doing any work.
Annabel Chen: But then her daughter got sick…
Jackie Jones: And when I would get home from work, she’d been in, be in my bed and she just looked… sickly. She looked, she was sweating, and she was achy and something I’d never seen before the fatigue and… just, it was like a monster.
Celine Gounder: She had COVID. Then her other son got COVID. Her son with Aspergers couldn’t cope with the unpredictability of the pandemic. He was hospitalized and… when he got out, he would need a place to stay. And Jackie needed new tires for her car. Jackie didn’t know where to turn. One day she was talking to a friend about all of it.
Jackie Jones: So she sent me the link for Cambridge Mutual Aid network. And, I reached out to them and it was a blessing.
Annabel Chen: The Cambridge Mutual Aid network helped Jackie get those tires she needed. And they helped her son find a place to live.
Lucy Flamm: This is a symbiotic relationship amongst volunteers to uplift one another as a form of solidarity, not charity.
Annabel Chen: This is Lucy Munsat-Flamm. She’s one of the organizing volunteers of the Cambridge Mutual Aid network. The Cambridge network was one of several groups that popped up at the beginning of the pandemic. When we spoke with Lucy, there were 800 volunteers signed up to offer any assistance they could.
Lucy Flamm: We’ve had individuals say that they can provide tarot card readings to that community. We’ve had individuals say they can provide assistance and filing for social services, such as pandemic unemployment.
Celine Gounder: So, you know, especially in this moment, I think people with social distancing and, granted, some of that’s being lifted now, but I think people feel everything from disconnected to lonely. How does a mutual aid society help address some of those feelings?
Lucy Flamm: Loneliness is something we hear a lot from individuals in our community. It’s a time of physical distancing. And at first this was really articulated as social distancing. And I think that’s a problem. Yes, we are physically disconnected, but that doesn’t mean that we’re socially disconnected.
Celine Gounder: If someone needs help with something, they put in a request… It’s all pretty simple. At its core, it’s lots of volunteers and an Excel spreadsheet.
Jeff Howe: You’re just trying to figure out, you know, people who have stuff and people who need stuff and match them up.
Celine Gounder: This is Jeff Howe. He’s a journalist and professor who lives in West Cambridge. Fun fact: he’s the guy who coined the phrase “crowdsourcing.”
Annabel Chen: Jeff volunteers as a sort of block captain for Cambridge Mutual Aid. The network is broken down into several neighborhood groups called pods. Jeff is a pod leader.
How did it feel for you to be sort of at the center of the hub, bringing all these people together?
Jeff Howe: Oh, I’m a Leo. So I loved it.
Annabel Chen: So here’s an example of how someone would get help through the network. One day, a family moves into an apartment. It’s their first place since being homeless. The only problem is, they couldn’t afford to furnish it.
Jeff Howe: You know, the organizers that Cambridge mutual aid at the Cambridge level, notice that that is in my neighborhood, and contact me and say, could you reach out to your neighbors to see if anyone would help these people furnish their apartment? Everyone’s home, right? So everyone’s there staring at their stuff that they cannot bring to a Goodwill because all the Goodwills are closed. So I become the Goodwill and, I just send out emails being like, I have way, way too many trash cans we’re done with please stop giving me…. I mean, these were nice, like kitchen trash cans, you know, but it was everything of his coffee makers and, you know, some really nice stuff. Some nice appliances. By that evening, I think, we’d been able to fully furnish the apartment.
Annabel Chen: Jeff thinks there’s a natural logic to these kinds of groups.
Jeff Howe: People are going to know what their neighbors need best. They’re going to be able to meet those needs most efficiently. And the motivation is going to be there. I think people are instantly, you know, care first about their family and then boom, they’re going to care about their neighbors.
Celine Gounder: Jeff says the experience of volunteering during the pandemic has helped him feel more at home in his own community. He had a similar experience after he spent months in New York City at Ground Zero covering the 9/11 attacks.
Jeff Howe: I think before then, I had always felt like an Ohioan, pretending to be a New Yorker, sort of an imposter syndrome. But after experiencing a crisis, you know, once you’ve been in a foxhole with your community, you know, you’re part of that community.
Celine Gounder: But some critics say not so fast.
Jeff Howe: It was evident that there was going to be an absence of capable top-down guidance, which is to say a president doing his or her job, his job in this case. So that was obvious that we were going to need local organization.
Annabel Chen: But some people might argue the opposite, right? Where they say like more local support or like crowdsourcing things where like mutual type groups shouldn’t have to exist. If the national response were good enough and people were taken care of the way they need to be.
Jeff Howe: You know, I think it’s a necessary thing, I mean honestly we would have needed some sort of mutual aid networks, even in, in the, in the best case governance scenario. At a very scary time in March when there was so much uncertainty and we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was like, okay, well, everyone on this block knew one thing, which was that other people on the block cared about them. And I thought that that was incredibly powerful.
Annabel Chen: And there are some problems that are bigger than Cambridge, or any one community. But Lucy thinks there’s a lot to be said about connecting people on a personal level, despite social distancing measures.
Lucy Flamm: These are moments where it’s not just, hi, nice to meet you, goodbye. This is a moment of getting to know neighbors who neighbors wouldn’t know otherwise. And I think that there’s something to be said for this moment in bringing people together and I truly wish that coronavirus wasn’t there impetus for this, but there’s something to be said for relationships, which will last beyond the coronavirus.
Celine Gounder: Jackie says she felt better receiving assistance through a mutual aid organization than traditional assistance programs she had to deal with in the past. She said those systems felt demeaning… and there was always the risk of being turned away.
Jackie Jones: Cambridge Mutual Aid network was uplifting and refreshing and kind. I think kindness is lacking in the welfare system, and kindness is essential for social connection.
Annabel Chen: How does it feel to be receiving that kindness?
Jackie Jones: I’m inspired. I feel like it’s the new way to do service.
Annabel Chen: What do you think is so special about the idea of neighborhood collaboration or like neighbor to neighbor helping, that just makes it feel so different? Cause I can hear it in your voice almost the way you talk about this organization. Like, it feels like it means something different to you. And I’m wondering just where, where is that coming from? Do you think?
Jackie Jones: Yes. Is it cause my mom was from the sixties… like I think that there was a simpler time when society helped each other. And I feel like the protests right now, yes, black lives matter are so important and they do matter and it is awakening. When you see that someone someone’s life matters, then you see it’s your neighbor. It’s not just the people protesting in, in, you know, in your streets. It’s the neighbor next door to you that that’s like, silently suffering, right? And this network has a way of reaching out and making a change and so quickly.
Annabel Chen: Earlier in the show, Jackie said that self-isolation felt natural to her. It was how she had to deal with her flight from domestic violence… and, at first, it was how she had to handle the coronavirus too.
Celine Gounder: But her experience with mutual aid showed her that there was a whole community of people out there… people who didn’t even know her… who cared about her and her family. It gave her hope.
Jackie Jones: So I guess I’m not so isolated. I guess what I lack in like say, you know, friends, girls coming over to have a glass of wine, I transitioned it into community service and that doesn’t make me feel lonely. It makes me feel empowered and that my life, the tragedies or the challenges or the experiences I went through help someone else who might be going through that.
Celine Gounder:“Epidemic” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. We’re funded in part by listeners like you. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast.
Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our music is by the Blue Dot Sessions. Our interns are Sonya Bharadwa, Annabel Chen, and Julie Levey.
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And check out our sister podcast “American Diagnosis.” You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or at americandiagnosis.fm. On “American Diagnosis,” we cover some of the biggest public health challenges affecting the nation today. In Season 1, we covered youth and mental health; in season 2, the opioid overdose crisis; and in season 3, gun violence in America.
I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. Thanks for listening to “Epidemic.”